Sunday, September 7, 2008

Earmarks and Ear Rings

How to strike a deal with a prostitute.
How to look beyond the insult of the ear marks to the real injuries of the budget. 53

At election time we are usually bombarded with promises to relieve the burden of earmarks. It is a promise made by the man who is not “behind the curtain.”

There are indeed two great currents of our money flowing through the process in Washington. Like a tsunami, there is a small wave traveling along the surface where we can see it, but there is an immense movement below the surface, finally materializing as it ultimately inundates our coastal cities. Concerning the matter of earmarks, the situation is the same. They are little more than insulting distractions, mosquito bites on the tail end of a bull.

A short note on the meaning of term may be in order. In the old days, that is, in the days when people read books, the corner of a page might be turned to assist the reader in returning to some specific material of special interest. Translated to the hundreds of pages of a typical issue of legislation, earmarks , at least in concept, serve the same purpose. Whatever the original focus of the bill in question, earmarks typically appear in some convenient, rarely read section, thus, the name.

To the originator of the earmark, however, a convenient means to locate his “little jewel” among the great body of “other stuff” in his bill, might include folding the corner of the page containing his earmark in his copy.

The exact nature of the earmark, that is, its nature with respect to more normal and transparent congressional decisions, is interesting. The usual process of allocating our tax money through the representative process of our Congress refers, somewhere, to a kind of general (majority) agreement as to the legitimacy of the proposal. In the optimistic idealism of our Constitution, a bill is written proposing an expenditure on a certain project, the Congressional Representatives all read it, argue about it, and perhaps negotiate compromises between differing views of it and, finally, pass it.

The life story of an earmark is somewhat different. Whatever project is proposed in an earmark typically reveals certain other character traits. It is something which will assist its author’s reelection. It is usually presented as something not really meriting the attention of the entire Congress in the sense that more central legislation might. Perhaps the goal of the earmark is presented as a matter of too small a fiscal significance to “tie things up.” More commonly, the benefactors of the earmark are seeking some advantage not particularly appetizing to the taste of the full House, hence the wide variety of the things -- from short expensive bridges to doughnut museums.

One might think that such highly exclusive interests would fail to garner Congressional votes, and if so, one would be partially correct. Happily, at least for the successful ear markers, this dismal possibility is mitigated by other rather arcane traditions in the Congress. Yes, although the bridge earmarked by one voice will hardly serve to interests of a constituency a thousand miles away, there remains the prospect of “mutual back scratching.” Supporting, or at least , failing to oppose, that distant pork will inevitably arise again later as a promise by its sponsor to support something much closer to home, say, so close as to be in one’s very own Congressional district. In that case, a bridge -- no matter how exclusive its benefit -- can often be converted directly into votes in a reelection campaign.

Occasionally, earmarks really do actually serve the interests of the country in some redeeming way. Usually however, this happy exception is little more than a passing dream in a windstorm. Perhaps Mullah Nassr Edin’s political axiom that “all political possibilities can also be political liabilities if they appear at cocktail parties without their lipstick” may be applied just here.

Patience, please. We’re getting to the prostitute part. A tedious context must be presented for my readers who have lives beyond obsessive political wonkerism.

We may need to ask, “What political purposes are served by ranting and railing about earmarks?”

First things first, be advised that all the earmarks (including $350,000,000 for Sara’s on-again off-again “bridge to nowhere”) in aggregate comprise no more than a “gnat’s sneeze” when compared to the massive flow of our money through the Congressional budget process. For example, we allocate around $400,000,000,000 (four hundred billion compared to $350,000,000 -- three hundred fifty million) annually for the visible elements of our defense expenditures.

Obviously, constructive efforts to maximize the effectiveness of the much larger amount would represent a laudable legislative effort on the part of a Senator. Yet, we find him repeatedly hawking one complaint after another about the smaller amount. Earmarks enjoy the unlikely advantage of being “insulting” to voters and taxpayers far away from the bridge. In fact, at least to voters and taxpayers, earmarks can be made far more “insulting” than a couple of “whoops, we missed that one” moments revealed in the review of the incredibly more massive defense allocation, for example. The "insult" is personal! After all, most of those tax payers will never have a chance to drive across that bridge.

Finally, to the matter of the prostitute. Let us imagine a sexually repressed evangelical in a distant city to attend a meeting of, say, a Sunday School Budget Convention. It is the evening after a long day of conferencing. He finds himself in the absolutely worst part of town, piloting his rented car along dark dismal streets lined with, shall we say, “women of the night.”

There they are. Lined up one after another, each competing for his attention. We arrive at the focal question. Will he select his secret evening company based on her ear rings?

Our evangelical might glance at those baubles for an instant, but his more energetic attention will quickly migrate to other features, you know, matters of a more substantial interest.

In our tortured analogy, of course, the ear rings represent the earmarks. But what do those “other matters” represent? The invitation offered to voters by the Senator’s flammable campaign diatribe about earmarks is an invitation to be transfixed on the ear rings, ignoring all the other considerations. Once again, he will say “Those bastards over in Fartandbolt County have a fine new bridge paid for by your tax dollars! Every cent interloped from the General Fund by that crooked Senator of theirs!”

It is, perhaps, a message made all the more poignant when considered in the sight of your own delapidated bridge, that is, the one right here in Boltandfart County. The ambition of this Senator, populist hero that he is -- or claims to be, is to distract us from the fact that the defense allocation contains five hundred “whoops!” items, each with a taxpayer cost ten thousand times larger than the entire cost to replace both bridges. And, that would not be the cost of replacing them with hard bid contracts, either. That would be the cost of replacing them with “brother-in-law,” no-bid babies of the worst variety! (“We simply had to buy a fleet of Bentley convertibles to pull the gravel trailers!”)

So, we have made a comparison between the bridge costs and the Congressional budget’s defense allocation. So what? Defense spending, often, but not always, at least results in something tangible (the Osprey? As in: "It's an Osprey! Don't stand under it when it 'flies' over!") which can appear on a video. The unseen killer traveling below the tsunami’s modest surface wave is comprised of far “stinkier” matters than a wasteful defense budget. In this sense, we once again descend with the evangelical’s eyes as he sizes up those now infamous "other matters" in the process of selecting his prostitute.

Yes, we can be insulted by Fartandbolt’s good fortune at our expense, but that new bridge is little more than a “slap on the cheek” when we consider the "other matters." If that new bridge in the next county is a “slap,” there are other budget drains more akin to having a vampire inserting a permanent blood capture needle in one’s artery. The campaigning Senator works diligently to keep our attention on the slap and off the needle.

Do we really want to conduct our electoral responsibilities based on an ear ring?

What exactly are these vampires extracting from us? In a land with wealth so great that we hardly notice the needle, that is, where we seem to perpetually enjoy the ridiculously false luxury of considering only the ear ring, we can be deceived by immensely over priced “elephants” (not a Freudian slip, usually...) which seem to provide at least a “little something” for a price so outrageous that it would never bear the bright illumination of a sunny day. Examples? Of course.

The pharmaceutical bill written for us by drug company lobbyists is the polar opposite of any imaginable bargain it might promise for the price. Yes, we have a nice discount on our medicine, but the price is unfathomable. Predictably, every economizing advantage is, essentially, illegal. What a coincidence!

The "deregulation of everything" seemed to be a means to eliminate inefficient and over priced government controls. Instead of the promised reduction in our costs for everything from electricity to mortgage loans, we have wound up suffering through the total exploitative vaporization of Enron and the taxpayer bail out of Bear Stearns.

The destruction of unions, for example the air traffic controllers union, was touted as a way to really save some bucks. Now we spend money at an incredibly increased rate to compensate for labor shortages. The workers remaining are fighting to perform their life saving tasks with equipment which belongs in a land fill. The airlines, far from being able to fulfill their promise to pass such savings on to us as consumers, are now raising fares weekly amid a customer population stranded in planes unable to take off where even a bag of peanuts is now offered at a price.

No-bid military contractors performing theoretically necessary tasks of all sorts at costs beyond measure (one bottle of drinking water in Iraq: $8.80?) were proposed as a means to lower the price of war-fighting. Halliburton is no petty crook. Its corporate extraction of tax money will reach toward one half trillion dollars before we finish in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that incredible amount of compensation will be for what we taxpayers might generously consider a few billion dollars worth of honest work.

If current matters are too troubling, reach back in history. The famous Keating Five bail out money is quite possibly still financing some small part of McCain’s campaign or, at least, some of his houses. Enron’s carefully engineered brown out in California, that is, the one which suddenly required out-of-state generated power to be imported at eight times the cost of the local stuff, was not “chump change.”

These are not simple cases of building a bridge for someone else. These are major withdrawals of major amounts of our economic blood. They have been carefully crafted by the most exploitative Congressmen and Senators, executed not as earmarks but as central legislation and protected by the absolute perfidy of other legislative, judicial and executive branch crooks and criminals (Those would be the “hard working” politicians who are now retired into $50 million dollar homes somewhere nice.) who were supposedly responsible for “checks and balances.”

Once these “blood sucking” programs are in place, they can last for decades, every day promoting dynastic fortunes resourced by our tax money. (For example, California is still suffering under the burden of the desperate contracts it got railroaded into to turn the lights back on. This even after the alleged death of Enron!)

So, no matter how appealing it may be to just gaze at the ear rings, keep track of the more important stuff, too. Don’t let them lead you down the path of simply responding to insults about someone else’s bridge while they slip the needle into your artery for a permanent blood draw!

They won’t quit just because you have been manipulated to deliver another election to them. Like the prostitute. They see themselves as the gift that just keeps on giving.

Only after they win their election will they notice that you've pulled out their needle!

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